Camera inventor clicks another Oscar

Gordon E. Sawyer Award

HOLLYWOOD — If you noticed the candlelit photography in “Barry Lyndon” or the p.o.v. shots of Jack Nicholson’s character careening through “The Shining,” you’ve seen products of engineer Edmund M. DiGiulio’s remarkable career.

DiGiulio, who has spent four decades developing film technologies like the Steadicam and the 65mm Showscan camera, has added the industry’s most prestigious honor to his large collection of kudos — an Oscar statuette.

At the sci-tech awards banquet March 2, DiGiulio received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy’s board of governors in recognition for his many contributions to filmmaking. It’s still rare that an Oscar statuette is bestowed upon an engineer, even though it is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. In receiving this Oscar, DiGiulio joins a list of honorees that includes special effects legends Ray Harryhausen and Linwood Dunn.

“I’m blown away by this,” admits DiGiulio, who is currently director of R&D for Tiffen.

DiGiulio, who’s developing a film scanner that uses advanced computer chip technology, remembers a time earlier in his career when cameras had to be cabled to sound recorders to maintain synchronization. “That always presented a problem, especially on location,” he says.

So DiGiulio created built-in crystal control motors that enabled equipment to run in sync without cables. When life got easier with the advent of bar-coded film, DiGiulio again helped the process along, developing the KeyKode Sync Reader hardware, an invention that earned him one of his four scientific achievement awards from the Academy.

DiGiulio actually came to motion pictures by way of IBM and the aerospace industry. Then, while developing a “reading machine” for Craig Research, he got involved in film and optics, which led to his joining the Mitchell camera company. “They recruited me because I had a film background,” he laughs.

While at Mitchell, DiGiulio produced several innovations. “Zoom lenses were just coming out then, and their controls were like clock motors. I knew we could do better than that,” he says.

Most significantly, he developed an approach to convert Mitchell’s cameras to reflex viewing, which profoundly influenced camera design.

By 1968, DiGiulio was heading his own company, Cinema Products, which he ran for 30 years.

“I was persuaded to get into the news camera market and we developed the CP 16, which became the be all and end all of television news-gathering cameras,” he says. “They’re still around, too. On ‘The Blair Witch Project’ the prime camera was the CP 16.”

Cinema Products’ other major breakthrough was the Steadicam, which DiGiulio developed with inventor Garrett Brown.

“It changed filmmaking by freeing up the camera” asserts Richard Edlund, chairman of the Academy committee that recommended DiGiulio for the Oscar.

Nonetheless, it took time for this breakthrough to be recognized, DiGiulio recalls. “Thank goodness the CP 16 was riding high so we had the money to develop the Steadicam.”

After Haskell Wexler used it in “Bound for Glory” and Kubrick used it in “The Shining,” others followed and the Steadicam took off.

Working with Kubrick on almost all his films since “A Clockwork Orange,” DiGiulio credits the director with “always pushing us to come up with something. For ‘Barry Lyndon’ we developed very fast lenses so Stanley could shoot by candlelight.”

Throughout his influential career, DiGiulio has authored many scientific papers and earned more than a dozen patents. Edlund calls him “an engineering statesman, someone you could always call on for advice.”

DiGiulio continues to lecture and inspire new filmmakers. “At one USC graduate seminar,” he says, “I told the students that regardless of what they hope to be in this industry, they should always remember that while filmmaking is the most exciting art form, technology is its palette.”

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